Column: Television reboots revive flawed representation amid demand for diversity


Jessica Xing

At first glance, recent reboots of television programs that reigned supreme during the 2000s and early 2010s are trying to improve upon their predecessors’ shortcomings. But a closer look at some revived projects reveals that television leaders still hesitate to embrace diversity on-and-off screen.

Cathy Ching, deputy lifestyle editor

The early 2000s are making a comeback to modern television — this time, with more diversity. 

Heeding criticism about the lack of diversity in television, Hollywood producers have rebooted shows like “Pretty Little Liars,” “Gossip Girl” and “Teen Wolf” that reigned supreme — monochromatically — in the 2000s and 2010s in an effort to right their past wrongs.

From its foundation, Hollywood has harbored a notorious penchant for underrepresenting marginalized stories and storytellers alike. Today, critics of Hollywood’s exclusionary past have leveraged online platforms to call out the film and television industries’ ruling creatives. Social media campaigns, like the trending hashtag #OscarsSoWhite of 2015, have sent Hollywood a clear message: The public is tired of the white-out on-screen. 

This public disapproval has turned into real pressure on Hollywood. A 2021 study by consulting firm McKinsey & Company found that the film and TV industry loses $10 billion a year due to lack of Black representation in front of and behind the camera. Sticking to all-white casts, crews and storylines isn’t just bad for press — it’s bad for business.

As the 21st century rolled around, minority groups that were previously erased from television were better represented on-screen, but not by much. “Gossip Girl” (2007-2012) featured one Black woman in a recurring — but supporting —- role and one gay man who similarly lacked any significant amount of screentime. “Pretty Little Liars” (2012-2017) featured four white actresses and one half-Asian actress, Shay Mitchell, who played a lesbian character in addition to being the only person of color in the main cast. Another popular show at the time, “Teen Wolf” (2011-2017), featured Asian American actress Arden Cho, who played a recurring main character. Cho was the only non-white actress in the main group of characters, and her character was cut from the show without warning before the series ended.

These shows, despite being popular, struggled throughout their years-long runtimes to truly embrace diversity. Today, television creators are trying to do things differently.

In recent reboots and revivals, some producers and cast members returning to breathe new life into old television titles have noted that they prioritized building a diverse cast and tackling issues that were previously seen as taboo in Hollywood filmmaking. In HBO Max’s new “Gossip Girl” series, which premiered in 2021, the main cast features fewer white actors than its 2007 predecessor. Characters in this revived series are also more accepting of nonbinary gender identities, non-heteronormative sexual orientations and sexual liberation, which the original “Gossip Girl” barely touched on.

In an interview with Harper’s Bazaar, actress Whitney Peak, who plays Zoya Lott in the reboot, expressed her gratitude for better representation in the new series.

“It’s dope being able to see people who look like you and who are interested in the same things, and who happen to be in entertainment, because it’s so influential and obviously reflective of the times,” Peak said.

But viewers of the reboot disagree. Despite the higher number of non-white faces on screen, critics have pointed out the hypocrisy in bringing in a diverse cast without addressing the reality that their characters would face. The “Gossip Girl” characters are often seen discussing white privilege in the halls of their elite private school or in their multi-million dollar apartments, but they fail to ever acknowledge the systemic racism that people of color face beyond passing remarks.

Others have argued that the diversity in the new “Gossip Girl” is not diverse enough. Three Black women, in the main cast of eight, are played by multiracial actresses with light skin, which maintains a commitment to colorism in the new reboot. Although this is not a surprise considering Hollywood’s past track record — only 19% of Black female leads in the past decade have had dark skin.

Like the new “Gossip Girl” reboot, the producers of “Pretty Little Liars: Original Sin,” which premiered on HBO Max this year, have put forth a noticeably more diverse group of girls as the show’s main leads. In an interview with Girls United, actress Chandler Kinney, who plays Tabby Hayworthe in the revival, praised the diversity in the show for lending visibility to minority groups who are not often represented in television. Unlike “Gossip Girl,” the “Pretty Little Liars: Original Sin” reboot takes a more direct, unfiltered approach to the forms of racism and marginalization that would realistically impact its characters’ lives. In “Original Sin,” Tabby even punches her classmate after he makes a microaggressive comment about “angry” Black women — how’s that for direct?

However, some viewers of the new reboot have pointed out that aside from the main characters and their parents, the rest of the cast is dominated by white actors. Not to mention, the leading group of five girls — two Black women, one Latina woman, one half-Asian woman and one white woman as the central lead character — have love interests who are all white men.

It’s easy to cast a diverse group of actors and put them in front of a camera, but when it comes to diversity beyond mere on-screen optics, leaders in film and television seem to still be fumbling.

Teen Wolf: The Movie” is a new revival set to release in October that will follow the story of the original “Teen Wolf” that premiered in 2011. Several lead actors from the original cast, like Dylan O’Brien and Tyler Hoechlin, have said they will not be returning for the movie because they are working on other projects. Arden Cho, who cemented her fame as one of the only recurring non-white actresses, has also said she is not returning — but for a different reason than O’Brien and Hoechlin. In an interview with The Cut, Cho revealed that she turned down the revival role after being offered less than half as much in pay as her white co-stars. Cho is not the only one. Other Asian American actors have also been reported receiving less pay than their white counterparts.

Given the recent attempts at diverse representation in the new reboots, producers have shown a lack of understanding of the difference between promoting a diverse cast and true representation.

At first glance, the reboots of the original 2000s shows seem to have made tremendous progress in highlighting minority communities by casting a diverse slate of actors. However, these reboots miss the mark in authentic representation. It is not enough to simply show non-white actors on screen and call it diverse storytelling when behind-the-scenes, white voices dominate the writers’ room and studios shell out less compensation for the work of people of color.

A critical eye can spot reboots that promise diversity for the wrong reasons. Although casting people of color is a first step in the right direction, Hollywood producers must understand that shallow representation is not the same thing as diversity and that reviving a flawed story from the past without true diversity is only a reboot of racist history.